Category Archives: Italy

The Best Thing to Do in Rome! The Angels and Demons Tour.

In my last post (here) I almost challenged Dan Brown to write another book about weird symbolic stuff used by the Catholic Church. I am a fan of his. I decided a long time ago that “when in Rome” I would take the Dan Brown Angels and Demons tour. It was the third tour we took with Dark Rome Tours, and by far the best. In fact it was the best five hours I spent in Rome.

I knew this would be a quirky thing to do, I just did not know it was going to be so fun.

What made it so good was our guide, Roberto, or Robert . He is half American and half Italian. He is a military brat who traveled the world as a youth in his fathers duffle bag. His father met an Italian bella, and the rest is history. Robert decided he liked Rome and came back here to get a degree in Archaeology. I think he said he is trying to write a book, I know if I ever see a book written by Robert Miller I will buy it. This guy is smart, and witty. I like his style. He makes my irreverence pale in comparison.

We met on the steps of the St. Maria del Popolo Church which is where the plot starts in Angels and Demons. There is a tomb inside of it designed by Raphael for the Banker Agostini Chigi family.

The first thing Robert did was pull out a dogeared hard copy of A&D. He asked how many of us had read it, and course we all had. I raised both hands. How many of us had seen the movie? Unanimous again. The next thing he said was “of course you know A&D is a work of fiction. A good book, a fun read, but fiction. We are not here to celebrate the book, but to show you the art that Brown talks about.” He went on to say that in some translations the book is actually titled The Bernini Mystery. Cool by me, I am a fan of Bernini, and I am sure long after Dan Brown books turn to dust, Bernini marbles will still capture peoples attention. I consider this a full service blog, but folks, no way could I serve Bernini with a brief allocation. Google him, please.

For those of you who have deprived yourself of reading the novel, I’ll let you know that we were on a search for the four alters of science, earth, air, fire and water. At each, an angel would point us to the next, until we found the secret lair of the Illuminati. I wont spoil the plot anymore. If you have read it I do not need to anyway.

OK, here are on the steps of St. Maria del Popolo Church. We go inside to find the knave of the Cigi family. It is shut off from view by a heavy curtain. Robert says he has talked to the powers that be about when it will be opened again, and I gathered they always tell him “soon.” But in my conspiracy addled mind I think the church, which detests Dan Brown, has just said screw the A&D tour. Maybe they open it later in the day after this tour is gone, I don’t know. But Robert showed us photos of Raphael’s design and and pointed out the Bernini angel that led us to the next location. The angel is titled Habakkuk and the Angel. The tomb is underground, in what is called a demon hole. Generations of Chigis are tossed in here. In fact there are demon holes in old churches all over Rome where wealthy families commissioned artists to design knaves for family plots.

demon hole rome

I took this in another church, but you get the idea of what a demon hole looks like. Basically it is a fancy manhole cover that the families open up and toss a dead relative into.

habakkuk and the angel, bernini

This is the first Bernini work we were treated to. Like I told you we really were not allowed to see this, so I grabbed this from the net. The angel is pointing us towards St. Peters square.

With the angel guiding our way we were off to St. Peters square. Dark Tours did this first class, we were on the best bus I have ever ridden in. All the way Robert did a great job of narrating our trip with very interesting historical facts that certainly educated us, while entertaining us.

At St. Peters square he challenged us to find the next clue.

This little cherub is one of sixteen in the square, but if you believe Brown, it is the only one. He needed to do that because the third altar of science is to the west.

Of course I had read the novel, plus I had been there the day before so I knew exactly where this clue was. So instead I looked for the centro del colonnatos. These are two spots in the square that show an optical illusion which Bernini created in his design of the square. The columns that outline the square are four deep, and from everywhere else within the square you see this. But if you stand right on these spots, you see only one. Bernini was a friggen genius.

Bernini placed these in the square so people could have fun with his optical illusion.

The cherub pointed us west, towards St. Maria della Vittoria Church. Inside this church is Bernini’s personal favorite sculpture titled Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Somehow this statue represents fire. I think Robert told us that St. Teresa had the same dream almost every night where she was consumed by the fires of hell. Again, I’ll refer you to the book, or you should go explore why St. Teresa is in ecstasy. She certainly looks like she is having an experience a nun is not supposed to have, that is all I’l say.

Another magnificent Bernini pointing us to the next alter.

The angel confronting Teresa is pointing us to Piazza Navona. In this plaza is yet another Bernini fountain, the fountain of the four rivers. Obviously this is the 4th alter of science, water. This is a very popular spot with tourists. We were staying a short walk from here and visited it a few times. Even in the evening it was crawling with people. In the movie of course it is abandoned.

four rivers fountain by Bernini

Bernini was commissioned to do a fountain for the people in a public square that celebrated four rivers, each in a different continent.

bernini alligator

This is on the side of the fountain depicting the Nile of Africa. Someone told Bernini there were these things called alligators in Africa, but he had never seen one, so this is what he gave us. I have an artist friend in Panama who does marvelous fanciful representations of critters and I think of her when I see this. (Hi Julie!)

angel of peace

Back to the plot…where is the angel in this fountain? Well it is a dove, the angel of peace, on top of an obelisk over the fountain. It is supposedly pointed at the Castel St. Angelo, but only in Dan Browns imagiantion.

So now the 4 alters have been covered and we have been directed to Castel Sant’Angelo. This is supposedly the secret lair of the Illuminati.

In reality, this is two buildings, one atop the other. The first was built to be Roman Emperor Hadrian‘s mausoleum. Which it was for a while until the barbarians and then the church decided it needed all the marble off the walls (again). It fell into disrepair until the 14th century when Pope Nicholas III connected the castle to St. Peter’s Basilica by a covered fortified corridor called the Passetto di Borgo.

The church then built on top of the mausoleum to make it into a fortress. It was the refuge of Pope Clement VII during the Sack of Rome (1527). The Passetto di Borgo is above ground and very visible, in contrast to the fictional account of Dan Brown which portrays it as a secret underground passageway.

The Castel Saint Angelo is predominately set on the banks of the Tiber and sort of looms over Rome.

Castel St. Angelo

The lair of the Illuminati is an obvious building, a mere mile from St. Peters. The angels on the bridge over the Tiber are all by Bernini. This photo belongs to

bernini angel

bernini angel on bridge

These three angels are all Bernini works on the bridge over the Tiber to Castel St. Angelo. It is a very beautiful walk. You forget there is a river underneath you as you try to take in the beauty of these sculptures.

st michael statue

If you look at the night photo in this above you will see this statue of St, Michael lit up on top of the Castel. Legend has it that the angel of St. Michel came to Rome to slay the plaque, and this is him sheathing his sword when the work was done. In the book and movie, he is of course pointing down into the Castel to let us know that this is where the Illuminati hang out and plot.

Our tour ended here. I tend to over-tip my guides anyway, but Robert had earned a huge tip. I handed it to him, and a few minutes later has asked me if I really meant to tip him that much. He told me it was the second biggest tip he had ever received. Only Ron Howard tipped him more, and that was for an 8 hour tour Howard took before they filmed A&D. Made me proud.

Thanks for reading. Share with a friend. For a while you will need find your own path to illumination for I am off on another set of adventures to write about, including a trek to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda!

Vatican City, and the Giant Pinecone

This was my second bucket list item in as many days!

Today, you say the word Vatican and everyone thinks of the center of the Roman Catholic Church, or some, the center of Christianity itself.

Some, such as your ever irreverent travel blogger, think of a place where secrets are guarded in order to not upset the power of the church. I’ll get to that soon.

So where does the word Vatican come from?  If you translate the roots of the word you get “a hill of oracles”.  Indeed this piece of land on the bank of the Tiber is where soothsayers gathered every day for the early Romans to come have their fortunes told. That is the simplest, least conspiratorial, explanation of the origin of the word. Others link it to a hallucinogenic plant called the vatika which was turned into wine and was drunk by the vaticinators.

So why is the belly button of Christendom located here? Well, this is where St. Peter went to preach. He was not exactly preaching to the choir with this crowd. Somehow he got the attention of the emperor Nero and was either crucified or buried here. The Church will tell you that his remains are deep beneath the Basilica. Throughout history many other Popes have been buried in the crypts of St. Peter’s.

Anyway, a church was built here in the 400’s, but it was not until the 1500’s that the present edifice was commissioned and built. Michelangelo designed the dome using the Pantheon as an inspiration and Bernini is given credit for most of the rest of the design.

It is of course the largest church in the Christian world. The scope of everything inside St. Peters shrinks humans. If you watch someone walk into a knave, they get smaller. Not from distance, from the surrounding size of things. On the floor of St. Peters you will find markers denoting the dimension of other great churches. About a third of the way from the front alter I found that this is the dimension of St Patrick’s in NYC. That is a huge church itself, but you could put three of them in St. Peter’s!

Everything in this place is really special.

But I am ahead of myself. Vatican City is more than St. Peters.

Once again we signed up with Dark Rome Tours. We had to meet them at what seemed like the crack of dawn in front of a coffee shop called Vatican Coffee. This was across the street from the entrance to the Vatican Museum. The line of people who did not pay for a tour and had to wait until the official opening time. They  looked a bit perturbed as we  brushed past them, listening to our guide on our radios.

vatican  museum

Even the entrance sign is ornate.

As you might know, or expect, the museum is huge. The tour is very well designed to show you in a mere couple of hours what took hundreds of years to put together. You wander past sculptures by great masters and paintings by geniuses. This is the only reason I could imagine not having a guide, being able to stop and spend as much time as you want trying to absorb the great works of art.

Two places inside the museum floored me.

The first was the Gallery of Maps. The gallery was commissioned in 1580 by Pope Gregory XIII.

The work fell to the hands of a friar and cartographer from Umbria by the name of   Ignazio Danti.

The maps are incredibly accurate to scale and detail.  They are not only beautiful, they represent an effort in cartography that could not be bettered with satellite imaging. This gallery makes up a long hallway, probably a hundred yards long, and has detailed maps of all of Italy.

This is just one of dozens of regions of Italy portrayed on the walls in great detail.

Just as I was catching my breath from the map room, we walked into the Raphael rooms.  His work called the School of Athens is a fresco that covers a wall with dimensions of about 5 meters by 7 ½ meters.  Yes that is large, but size does not matter. The painting is the masterpiece of a man who painted nothing but masterpieces.

school of Athens by Raphael

In this painting he portrayed all the great minds and artists. He used people he knew as models for some of the personages. For instance he painted Michelangelo as Plato. He did this while Michelangelo was flat on his back on a high scaffold painting some ceiling somewhere else.

raphael as apelles

The only face in the painting looking out at you is a self portrait of Raphael. He seems to be asking, “so, you like my painting?” He is portraying himself as the Greek painter Apelles, so he got away with it.

From here we walked out into what is called the Courtyard of the Pine.

courtyard of the pine, Vatican city

This is a very large courtyard surrounded by official buildings of the government of the Vatican. It is dominated by this huge brass pinecone. I wondered why, and the guide basically gave me an answer that sounded to me like “because its there.” So, in my pursuit of excellence in blogging I got home and investigated this damn thing. Read on for my favorite conspiracy of the day.

During my studies I discovered  the symbolic meaning of the pinecone is to represent the Pineal gland, which (as some of you know) controls the melatonin in your body and is shaped like a pinecone, hence the name. Some also call it the “third eye”. Why then, is it present in the Vatican City? What kind of meaning do they (the church) tie to it?

Our “Pine”al Gland, is at the geometric center of our brain and is intimately linked to our body’s perception of light. The Pineal modulates our wake-sleep patterns and circadian rhythms, remains uniquely isolated from the blood-brain barrier system, and receives a higher percentage of blood flow than any other area of the body save the kidneys.

It is considered by many to be our biological Third Eye, the “Seat of the Soul,” the “Epicenter of Enlightenment” — and its sacred symbol throughout history, in cultures around the world, has been the pinecone.

Oh I could go on and on about the pinecone in religions throughout history. I could tell you that we only have one pineal gland and therefore we can only have one thought at a time.  But there are many of you who if not already rolling your eyes or reaching for the mouse are saying, “look man, sometimes art is just art” Then I ask you to explain…

Papal staff pine cone

…why does the Papal Staff has a pinecone on it? Maybe this is a plot for the next Dan Brown novel.

This is after all an irreverent travel blog.

Now we entered the great Sistine Chapel. I will not tel  my readers  the stories behind Michelangelo and the Pope who commissioned him to paint the ceiling. I’ll just tell you to rent  The Agony and the Ecstasy.  What I will say is that there is nothing to say that can describe the feeling of actually being here.  You just have to do it yourself. No photos, no movie and no amateur blogger can begin to give you that feeling.

Sistine chapel

This is the picture everyone knows of Michelangelo’s ceiling. I had to snap this shot secretly because some Japanese firm paid for the restoration of all the paintings on the ceiling in return for the copyrights to the art. If they sue me, I’ll settle up with Michelango.

This is where I lost the tour group, for a while. I sort of wandered off to get a feeling for this chapel where new Popes are chosen behind locked doors. Before I knew it I was out of radio range from our guide, so I just wandered towards the Basilica where I knew they were headed.  Our guide was a bit pissed off, not that I would miss out on her commentary or get lost,  but that I had the radio which she was financially responsible for.

When I walked outside I found “the Chimney”where the black or white smoke comes out after each vote for a new pope.

Papal chimney

You can barely see it, but at times it is the most watched icon in the world.

doors of St. Peter's

This is one of the set of brass doors at the entrance to the Basilica. The brass supposedly came from a colossus statue of a pagan god that stood outside the Coliseum, (which is how the Coliseum got its name). The church took the brass statue and melted it down for the Vatican’s use.


This is probably the most famous sculpture inside St. Peters. Michelangelo’s Pieta. The Pieta was his first major work. He sculpted this when he was in his early 20’s. Some jealous artists claimed he could not have done it, so he grabbed his chisel and carved his signature into it. It is the only piece he ever signed. It is Mary holding Jesus after he was crucified. Mary is made to look like a teenager to show her eternal youth.

This is where I caught up with the tour group. I knew they would have to come see the Pieta, so I hung around and enjoyed it until they caught up. We toured the massive Basilica for quite some time and saw very little of it. If I ever go back to Rome, I’ll go in the dead of winter (less crowded) and get in line for St. Peters at about 6 in the morning, so I do not have to wait in the eternal line that forms.

tomb of Jophn Paul II

The last thing I’ll show you is the tomb of John Paul II. He was recently promoted up in the ranks toward sainthood, so they moved his sarcophagus where people can see it. When he makes the majors (sainthood) I guess he gets some other special place. Maybe with a pinecone?

Thanks for reading. Share with a FB friend. Don’t tell the Japanese guys I ripped of a photo, and whatever you do, take care of your pineal gland!

Next post…the best 5 hours in Rome. Stay tuned.

The Coliseum

Even before I had a bucket list, the Coliseum was on my bucket list. The most iconic symbol of Rome screamed out at me to visit since I was a child. Movies with gladiators and other bloody events taking place in front of the emperor and thousands of Romans made me commit to see the place. I was not disappointed.


As iconic as it gets.

After eight years of slave labor went into building the largest amphitheatre in the Roman world, it opened in 80 AD with a hundred days of games. Over 9000 wild animals were killed in these inaugural games, besides the gladiators. The floor of the amphitheatre was covered in sand, and is the origin of the word arena, which many of you recognize as the word for sand in Latin based languages. The sand was to make it easy to clean up the blood. Imagine how much blood was shed…

We signed up with a very reputable tour agency called Rome Dark Tours. In fact we took three tours with this group. The guides all have university degrees in either history or archeology, and then must pass a rigorous examination before the government will issue them a guide license. This is actually true all over Italy, and in fact most everywhere we have travelled.

Using a sanctioned, licensed tour agency has one other great advantage. You skip the queue. In fact, you enter the facility earlier than it opens for those who choose to go it alone. I saw the lines of people waiting to get into the Coliseum and other sites as we sauntered by and realized that our enjoyment was about to be enhanced. Also, the guided tours usually allow patrons access to areas where the do-it-yourself folks are simply not allowed. This was the case with the Coliseum, and it made the experience complete.

vomitoreum coliseum

This is where we entered this historic building. Notice the gate is numbered, just like today, it is LIII. The passages leading to the gates were referred to as vomitoreum, for some reason. Maybe it was because of all the people shooting through them. Take a close look. See the holes in the wall? That is where the original marble cladding was attached to the now exposed travertine stone.

Our tour took us from the hypogeum, a series of underground tunnels to hold the animals and slaves, up into the nose bleed sets where the poor people sat to watch the carnage. Neither of these areas are accessible to people who do not believe in paying for a tour.


This is a portion of the hypogeum.


This is the tunnel that comes underground from the training area and dormitories of the gladiators. This is where they waited to be called up to battle.


This photo is from are the cheap seats. They were added years after the coliseum opened to allow more access for the 99%. In total the coliseum held 50,000 blood thirsty fans. You can see a reconstruction of the floor, or arena in the distance and the tunnels underneath.

senators seats in the coliseum

This is where the senators sat to watch the carnage. As a reference point I would say they were on the ten yard line, and low.

emporers seats in coliseum

This fifty yardline seat is where the Emperors sat. They were close enough to smell the blood.

The Coliseum saw gladiator fights until the year 484 and animal slaughters until 523. Since then it has suffered from earthquakes and stone robbing to build other edifices in Rome. When you look at the building today what you see is the travertine skeleton. When constructed it was covered in white marble. Most of that was lost to the barbarians or the church who used it in Vatican City. It is currently under a restoration of a type. Paid for by a wealthy man, his efforts have squashed an earlier plan to sell advertising in the form of big billboards inside the amphitheater in order to finance much needed safety and esoteric improvements.

Our tour included a visit to a very historic site next door to the Coliseum, the Roman Forum. The Forum is the ancient roman gathering spot, market area and home to the Senate It is located in a valley between two hills. The first is called Palatine hill. This hill was originally occupied by the first king of Rome, Romulus. The other hill by his rival. Over time the area now known as the Forum was the very center of Roman life, with historical figures such as Cicero, and Nero roaming the cobblestone streets. The cobblestones are still there, and are an invitation to a sprained ankle!

Roman Senate

This is the Senate building in the Forum. This is where Brutus killed Ceasar. You can walk right on the steps where Ceasar died and scream Et Tu Brutus? So I did.

Senate Floor, rome

This is the actual, the real, the ancient Senate floor.

There is so much more to say about the Forum, but I fiddle while my blog burns…get it?

Please share this with a FB friend or two or three. Do not be afraid to make a comment. Et Tu Reader?

Next post, the Vatican and the Sistine chapel. After that, the best five hours in Rome, stay tuned.

Random Roaming in Roma

In my next two posts I will cover the elimination of two more of my bucket list items, the Coliseum and of course Vatican City. Then I will treat you to the best thing I did in Rome, I’ll keep that for a surprise.

This post will ramble around in no particular order and try to tell you in my normal irreverent manner about some of the other cool stuff we saw in Rome.

Rome is a walking town. Nothing is far from anything, and walking is faster than any form of transportation available. When you have a destination to walk to in Rome, you will get sidetracked and hijacked by a myriad of other things you just have to stop and see. There are over three thousand sculptures by just Bernini in this city, many of them fantastic fountains. That 15 minute walk will take an hour and a half, so plan ahead.

Our hotel was right next to the Pantheon. The Pantheon was a Roman temple dedicated to all (pan) the gods (Theos). It was first erected in 27 BC, and after a couple of fires, completely redone by Hadrian in AD 120. It is regarded as the most influential building in art history. The dome was studied by Michelangelo before he designed the dome of the Basilica of St. Peters. It inspired the United States Capitol dome and Thomas Jefferson emulated it when he designed the dome at the University of Virginia.

The Pantheon has a Greek style portico, but behind this is the most amazing feat of ancient architecture in the world.


I took this photo early in the morning before the hordes of tourists showed up. Stand in front of this building long enough and you will probably hear every language known to man. Panlingua? This is the Greco portico, behind it stands arguably the most amazing architectural feat of the ancient world.

The dome of the Pantheon sits on a circular base, and until the renaissance was the highest dome in the world. It is mathematically perfect. It is exactly as high as it is wide, 142 feet. It is made with concrete, which was a Roman invention.

The dome supports itself because it is 23 feet thick at the bottom, and five feet thick at the top. The concrete at the bottom is mixed with travertine, and the top mixed with much lighter pumice. Also, the engineers at the time designed a coffered ceiling to lighten the load.

To top it off is the Oculus. This is an open ceiling, and the Pantheons sole source of light. Yes, it rains in Rome, so the floor of the Pantheon is slightly concave, and a couple dozen barely noticeable holes in the floor drain away whatever rainfall comes through the Oculus.


This is your favorite travel blogger standing under the coffered ceiling with the oculus inside the Pantheon.

oculus sun dial

The oculus, besides providing light for the Pantheon, is also a type of sundial.

The building itself was covered with marble, back before the barbarians came and took it all away. Well, not all of it.  What they did not take was taken by the Vatican to build St. Peters Basilica. This is a recurring theme in Rome. The saying is “What the Barbarians didn’t do, Barberini did” (The Barberinis being a Papal family).

The Pantheon has a few tombs, the most meaningful is the tomb of Raphael. If you are not familiar with Raphael’s bio, you should Google him. An amazing painter and playboy Raphael designed his own tomb for the Pantheon.

Raphels tomb

Raphaels mortal corpse lies here, but his work lives forever. Above him is a statue of Madonna and child which Raphael himself commissioned for his tomb. The inscription in it reads “In life, nature feared to be outdone by him. In death, she feared that she too would die.”
Raphael’s legend as a man-about-town was apparently true, he died in his mid thirties.

I took this shot because I am pretty sure that this marble shows a horned head of a type of god. I cannot find any support for my theory, and the couple of people I talked to who worked there looked at me like I had horns on MY head. But look closely, I think you will see it.

The Pantheon is located next to the Piazza della Rotunda. For two thousand years this has been a gathering place for Romans. For quite some time it was where people came to buy and sell birds, from chickens to parrots. Today, the only Romans around are waiters in the cafes or musicians. We sat in a café (dinner was two individual pizzas and a small bottle of wine, for $75) but we were entertained by a guy singing Frank Sinatra songs one night and another singing opera the next, somehow fitting. The piazza has a nice fountain which is topped by one of the dozens of obelisks stolen from Egypt found all over Rome.

Well, I think it is a good shot anyway.

A short walk from this piazza is the famous Trevi fountain. Made famous by Hollywood, is is truly a magnificent fountain which takes up a city block.

trevi fountain

One of the great works of Bernini, this fountain attracts legions of tourists.

As you can see here, it is a madhouse near the Trevi Fountain.

Throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain

Legend has it that if you toss a coin into this fountain,you will return to Rome. I want to someday (so much more to see) so I got as close as I could and tossed a Euro into it. Every day the city pulls about 3000 euros out of the fountain, for charities around Rome.

Boca de verita

This is Mary Ann and and me with our hands in the Boca de Verita, the Mouth of Truth. Legend has it that if you tell a lie with your hand in the mouth, it will be bitten off. This marble figure has many theories about  it’s origin, the most scholarly dates it to the 4th century B.C. There is no record of it biting anyone, that I know of.. This was supposed to be a “little visited” site in Rome, so we only had to stand in line for about an hour.

My rambling post will end where I had an almost rapturous experience. It is called the Gesu church. It is the center of the Jesuit order, which is a big deal, BIG deal. Including St. Peter’s, I found the Gesu, the most astounding church I saw in Rome. It is not only the epitome of Baroque, it is also the most outlandish example of “in-your-face” wealth I can imagine. I have always said to the Catholic church, sell a gargoyle and feed the poor.  If they sold he statue of St. Ignatius, (unveiled if you click on the link later) they could feed the Sudan for a generation. The entire statue is gold and silver with many many jewels stuck all over it. And St. Ignatius was an advocate of poverty, go figure.

During the counter-reformation the Jesuits led the battle against those galling Protestants for the hearts and minds of Christians. Art was a powerful propaganda weapon. Enormous sculpted murals of religion overthrowing heresy (heresy being the pesky Protestants) told the story the Jesuits needed to teach in an age when only royalty and the priests could read.

But the rapture happens at 5:30 every evening.  (Click HERE for the rapture. This unveiling of St. Ignatius is something that you must see when in Rome. The painting hiding it is of his demise in China when trying to spread the gospel. As it disappears, the music is quite loud. The  faithful cross themselves  cry and kneel, and yours truly snaps fotos, wondering if perhaps I am not on the right bus.

Gesu, rome

After I thought about that for a second, I turned to the window, and I was stricken with this. All I could do was leave, cross the street, and have beer.

OK, faithful readers. My next three posts will be shorter, I promise. If you have not subscribed to my blog, look to the column on the right and do so. I promise you will get raptured by every post you read. Share this with a friend on Facebook, and if you are inspired, make a comment.

Rome on $500 a Day

We left Umbria after 6 days of wonderful tours, meals, making new friends and never reaching for our wallet all courtesy of the Umbrian tourism authority and Travel Bloggers Unite. We took a nice train ride of about 2 hours into Rome’s central train station.

I got off the train and desperately needed to relive myself of that morning’s espresso shots. The men’s room was as far away as it could be which only added to the desperation in my hustle. I walked into the room to find a turnstile with a coin slot. In order to get into the men’s room you had to put in 1 Euro. Even I, in my agitated gotta go mood, could do THAT math. In real money, the fee for using the bathroom was US$1.60. Welcome to Rome bozo. It turned out to be the only bargain in the city.

We walked out of the station to find a few dozen eager cab drivers ready to accept inflated (although metered) fares into town. I just sat back and watched what they call the eternal city drift by the rear window of the Fiat, while the numbers on the meter spun around like Marty Feldman’s eyes.

I lost myself in my first impressions of Rome. Rome’s color is not that of any other city I have ever visited. Not the color of concrete or steel and glass. No trace of the dark red of brick, or faded tropical pastels. Instead it was a very earthy color, organic in origin, for the city is made of limestone and tufa. It is often covered with a faded, worn, low grade marble that has the texture of aged cheese.

Our driver was intent on getting us to our hotel, which was directly in front of what would become my favorite spot in Rome, the Pantheon.


There is a lot to say about the Pantheon, and I will do so in my next post. If you cannot wait, WIKI it. It is fascinating, It must be, 10,00 tourists cant’ be wrong at the same time!

He was not giving us a tour, but when in Rome… We passed many fountains. Not the grand Bernini works famous in film and literature just fountains. Rome has probably more fountains than any other major city per sq. mile. It sure seems that way. Our route took us up one small road and down another, some barely able to allow passage of the vehicle, and all of them crawling with tourists. The going was slow, but the sightseeing was already marvelous.

When we arrived at the hotel and I looked at the meter (which was now smoking after having to work so hard) I realized I have paid less for air flights than this taxi fare. I did not know if this was karma for all the freebies I got in Umbria or not, but I knew the next four days were going to put a serious dent in my wallet. I could not imagine why Italy has a financial crisis. The place is overrun with international tourists; all paying prices that would make Michelangelo ask the Pope for a raise.

Stay tuned for future posts as I cross two items of my bucket list and enjoy the rest of this great city.

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An Electronic Librarian in a Medieval Library

My wife Mary Ann has a job in a very modern, well funded library in Sharjah UAE. Thanks to the benevolence of the ruler of Sharjah who I unashamedly give a nod to whenever I see his photo. He supports education and the arts at great expense. Shukran.

Her title is Electronic Resources Librarian. In Umbria we got to see the oldest library books either of us will likely ever see, as well as a medieval email!

medieval library

I caught Mary Ann in a moment of shock and awe as she made her way past the “recent” collection (1800’s) into the special collection.

medieval library

These are some of the books from the 1400’S!! I could make out some of the Latin titles enough to know that there were court proceeding records and land title records. Imagine being able to trace the ownership of a parcel of land back to 1450. Mary Ann was quick to pint out that these books were not categorized in either the Dewey Decimal OR  the Library of Congress system! I am no expert on the subject but I suspect these are cataloged  with a system developed by Callimachus, considered the first bibliographer and is the one that organized the library by authors and subjects. Variations on his system were used in libraries until the late 1800s.

medieval calligraphy

They just don’t make them like this anymore. Calligraphy in a 1400’s book.

medieval book

Page one. I beleive this is called a frontispiece. Hand drawn with real gold leafing. You just cannot get this off Amazon!

medieval book

We took one of the books out to examine it. It was a book published in Florence for use by the priests. It  told them how to dole out earthly punishment for sins. The librarian said most of the sins listed were, ahh, sexual in nature! The notes here were written by a priest 500 years ago, I wish I knew what they said, probably something like, “this book just does not cover this man’s sins, you would not believe what he confessed. His poor livestock…”

I am a book freak. I used to collect first editions until they weighed more than my furniture. But I never ever held a 600 year old book in my hands before. I treated it like nitroglycerin.

Now what about that medieval email?

constantantine communication

Well, maybe not email. Maybe snail mail? Maybe mule mail? This is a communication the emperor Constantine sent this town rewarding them with the privilege to stage a festival of games. It is the pride of their library. AND you can walk right up and touch it. It stands about 4 feet tall.


The only word I recognized on the entire message just jumped out at me. I showed it to Mary Ann and I could see visions of Russel Crowe in her eyes.

This was another wonderful experience granted the delegates of the travel bloggers conference. We actually took it a step further by introducing Mary Ann as a professional librarian, so they opened the doors to the collection. Magnificent!

I will share this idea with any of you who can write grants. There is definitely an opportunity for a grant from someone like the world Heritage Foundation of Unesco to find a way to digitize these volumes so that scholars can use them without danger to the books themselves.  Of course you would have to speak Latin…

Please share this with your FB friends, and tell any of your bookie friends about it.

Thanks for reading, stay tuned for more from Italy.

Streets and Doors in Umbria

This is a simple photo essay. The photos were all taken in medieval towns in Umbria. ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

St George’s Day at Lungarotti Vinyards

The last winery I took you to was new and experimental. See that post at

Lungarotti is well established and traditional. Lungarotti wines can be found around the world. If your wine shop does not have any, educate them and have them buy a case or two. You will end up buying all they stock!

Lungarotti is the creation of Giorgio Lungarotti over fifty years ago, He had a vision back then that was very forward thinking. He had a great love of the land and a respect for the people of Umbria  and the community of Torgiano. His commitment to the environment and the dignity of  people shows up wherever you look at Lungarotti.

He combined family land holdings and worked with other land owners to create a winery with a spectacular range of varietals.  In a brochure I was given, I count 27 different labels, some blends and some sparkling.

We were treated to a magnificent lunch of Umbrian specialties. During this feast they treated us to a lot of wine. At one point, I got up, left the table, stumbled my way to the reception area where they sold the wines and purchased a bottle of the nectar I was drinking. It is called San Giorgio. It is a blend of 50% Cabernet, 40% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo. I bought an 8 year old vintage because I was told it is best drunk aged for 10 to 15 years , and I did not want to wait more than 2! It is carefully stored where I will forget about it

I have a ream of very interesting promotional materials. but If I shared half of it with you, this post would be too long. I Suggest you go to  and see for yourself what a first class organization this is. It is not only a winery. They have a restuarant and a charming resort with a wellness center that specializes in vinotherapy! I would love to give THAT a try!

Now we were extremely lucky to arrive on St. George’s day.  In  Torgiano this day in early spring marks the start of the new growth on the vines. They have a special celebration where they burn the cuttings of the old growth in giant bonfires all around the region.


This is out blogger group 1 at the bonfire. Everyone looks so happy, because they are!

I’ll get back to that, but first let me introduce our most graceful hosts.

Francesco Zaganelli

This is the grandson of Giorgio. He is the PR and Communication Manager for Lungarotti. He graduated from law school and went off to make his own life before the proud family history lured him back. Although overqualified, he gives a great winery tour. I know just enough about wine to sound ignorant about it, so I tried to stump him with a couple questions, could not do it! Francesco was born in Assisi on St Francis day, hence the name.

Teresa Severini and Maria Grazia

This is  Francesco’s mother and grandmother, Teresa and Maria Grazia. He referred to his grandmother as “the big boss” . Teresa has degrees in Enology from Italy and France. She is one of the first women admitted to the prestigious International Wine Academy in Geneva, among a long list of CV items. Maria Grazia started both a wine museum and an Olive oil museum in the local town. I will explain the gold medals later on.

Lungarotti wines

Now back to our tour. Lungarotti is both modern and traditional. These casks are french oak and help give the wine a great flavor during aging. This is just one photo of one area. Folks, this is a big winery. However, they have not sacrificed the hands-on full of  love approach to wine  making for commercial expediency in the least.

Lungarotti winery

The bottling facility has been in use for twenty years and it still bottles hundreds of thousands of bottles every year.

Lungarotti Winery

I wish I could afford some of these vintage Lungarotti wines!

OK, now to St. George’s day. This special day in Torgiano is celebrated with Bonfires of the old vines. Us bloggers from TBU were invited by wonderful Teresa to a celebration held by her family and community on a hill overlooking the valley. The aforementioned gold medals are badges of honor for those folks who contribute their time to organizing this event.

This is the community that came out for the celebration. I felt very welcomed by all of them.

I made some new pals!

You can see the bonfire behind three scions of the family. From L to R, Teresa’s daughter who had me laughing while explaining the wonderful life in Umbria and the rivalry with Tuscany. Teresa who was our host of extraordinary skill, and Teresa’s older brother who is the Consigliere to the Minister of Defense in Rome.

They roasted a pig, and we ate it with gusto. Of course there was wine! Altogether it was a wonderful night.

Thank you Lungarotti! Thank you Teresa, I have not been so welcomed by anyone in ages.

To my faithful readers, please share this with your FB friends so that more people can learn about this fantastic family and their fantastic wine!

Medieval Arts and Crafts

Between winery stops I am going to tell you about a visit to another medieval town. Umbria has these beautiful little towns on hilltops wherever you go. They are just far enough apart that one can imagine a person living in the 15th century in Assisi or Bevagna for their entire life and never traveling to the other. I would need to bone up on the local history to know who they had to fortify the villages against, but each one is surrounded by formidable walls with solid gates.

This post will center on Bevagna.


Info sheet at the gates to Bevagna. I could only imagine what it said.


Once you get inside the gate (no passport needed) you start to climb toward the center of town. That is just the way it is in these medieval cities. It seems that you must climb going in or out!


Once you have reached the center of the city,things level out. The 15th century is alive and well. One guide we had told us that these walls inside the city were once covered with plaster and painted pastel colors. Indeed if you look at old paintings you see that. She told us that in the 18th century this was somehow a cause for concern and that the plaster was removed. I don’t buy that. I think the artists were using artistic license.

This church supposedly contains the rock from which St. Francis preached when he had to ask the birds to be quiet. It is a major legend, you can look it up.

Every year in June the town has a celebration, reminiscent to me at least, of a renaissance faire.  The entire town dresses in medieval costumes. This celebration is not intended to be a tourist attraction, they do it for themselves to celebrate their heritage. That being said, I think it would be a wonderful time to visit Bevagna for a day during a longer stay in Umbria. Included in Bevagna’s celebration is a contest for the best recreation of medieval crafts. We visited two past prize winners. A papermaker and a candlemaker.

Paper making in Bevagna

This guy was really cool. He has won the town’s competition for preserving the art of paper making. He demonstrated it to us. It is a long, time consuming process, but he seems to love his work.

paper making in Bevagna

The first step is the mulching of a combination of cast off clothing and hemp into a sloppy paste which then gets pressed onto a screen type of thing (hey, I am not a techie). The paper receives a watermark, and is then dried. Altogether from rags to paper the process can take three months. I pruoudly own a sheet of his paper. It is anything but modern. I’ll never use it because you need a quill to write on it and forget about a laser printer!

paper make bevagna

This is Mary Ann leaving the paper makers abode, asking me, “what the heck are you going to do with the paper you bought?”

Lapis lazuli

We stopped at an artist compound that does mostly religious art. Beautiful stuff. They use the medieval methods, including creating their own colors from natural elements. The blue stone in the box is Lapis Lazuli. This stone is the original blue. Michelangelo and Raphael used in in their frescoes. It was and is still is an expensive way to make the color blue. I asked how much this stone cost. I realized I could finance a trip to Italy if I filled my suitcase withe Lapis I can buy here in the UAE for a lot less money!

candle maker Bevagna

We then went to a candle maker. He uses pure bees wax to make some wonderful candles. I got a chance to make my own. I can now say I made the world’s ugliest candle!

We also went to a Olive oil producer. I will cover that in a future post, so stay tuned.

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Beyond Assisi, Winery Tour Stop 1

The bloggers conference was over. I did not mention meeting Steve McCurry, maybe the best travel photog on the planet.

Steve McCurry

This is the Steve McCurry photo everyone knows. He gave a speech, answered questions and had dinner with us. A kind and talented man.

Now the Umbria Tourist board treated us to one of six 2 ½ day tours around Umbria. We choose the wine and crafts tour. Others chose the chocolate tour or the adventure tour with white water rafting. Umbria has many attractions and if you are ever in Italy, be sure to visit this wonderful region.

Our first stop was at a very new (in Italian ages) winery. It is called Terra Margaratelli. Our guide works for the Umbria wine promotion board, so the wineries all know him. They knew a bunch of travel bloggers were coming and they really put out the spread.

This winery like I said is almost brand new. They are trying new varietals and blends. They also have resurrected some old endemic varietals mostly grown only by private local farmers and are bottling them commercial for the first time. I really liked the guy in charge. He loves his work and is passionate about it as only love can make you.

We were treated to as much wine as we could handle and still be able to climb back into the bus. My favorite was perhaps the best white wine I have ever had. They call it Greco di Renabianca, it is 100% Grechetto. It is a very full bodied white, with a complexity that makes you think and taste more than once. Because this is still a small winery, I do not know if you can get this nectar in the USA, but ask your wine shop to get some, well worth it!

terra margaratelli

A view of the vineyards through the wine glasses.

Italian wine in french barrels

Margaratelli has special French oakcasks made just for them, which give their wines a unique taste.

terre margaritelli

I am pretty sure I tasted them all!

They also served us a complete lunch, or we could have been in real trouble!

learning Bocci

After lunch, some of the workers taught me how to play Bocce! Great guys!

Next post..the next winery. Or is it the crafts in a medieval village. I forget, too much wine!

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